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September 16, 2007

Jim, Bring Back The Boots


Today, with boots on the ground 6,000 miles away, the history of that struggle is still in the making.

– Dick Cheney, September 14, 2007.  Grand Rapids, MI.

The latest legislative strategy on the part of the Dems might look like “half a loaf” to the roots, but it represents a terrific challenge to the Administration’s dominance over the war narrative.  Beyond that, it offers all kinds of visual and symbolic opportunities if the Democrats were somehow savvy enough to take notice.

Up to now, the Administration has thoroughly leveraged the military in selling the war (as evidenced by yesterday’s White House photo gallery, and Friday’s Bush/Cheney appearance schedule closing out the Administration’s latest Iraq Sell-A-Thon.)  In perhaps the defining example of this appropriation, the phrase “Support Our Troops” might as well be translated: “Support The War … However We NeoCons Choose To Define It.”

But then, enter the Webb amendment.  As a strategy, it is not lost on anybody that legislation to require time home for soldiers in an amount equal to the length of time deployed will force the White House and the military to commence a significant draw drawn in Iraq.  As significantly, however, it creates the opportunity for Democrats to simultaneously refashion and elevate their standing in relation to the (well being and viability of the) troops, patriotism and influence over war policy.

As a strategy, as mentioned above, opportunity abounds.  If implemented, however, would legislation, on its own, be enough to alter strategic political associations in people’s minds?

Last January, following Jim Webb’s “Democratic Response” to the President’s State of the Union Message, I noted the Senator’s use of a family portrait as a visual and emotive device to link the Democrats to a more sober determination of when to wage war.  In that post, I also indicated that the Dems needed to do a far better job in crafting their imagery.  To be successful in that regard, it is not only important to articulate effective visual and linguistic metaphors, but to also pound them home on a repeated basis.

At the Yearly Kos panel at the August conference, George Lakoff made an interesting observation in response to a question about why Democrats are so weak on framing.  In his response, Lakoff said one key to seeding a message is repetition, and that Dems are terrible at repetition.

As a case in point, I ask: What happened to the boots?


Certainly, many people will identify this visual from Jim Webb’s Senate victory party as one of the classic shots of the Democratic mid-term triumph.

Why it is so recognizable, however, has much to do with that pair of visual lightning rods that so powerfully helped seal the election deal.  Given his credentials as a veteran, the fact he comes from a military family, and the fact those shoes (which he often wore during the campaign) were his son’s combat boots from Iraq, I’m wondering where did they go?

Why did Webb drop them, for example, and switch to a much weaker symbol (of a photograph of his father serving in WWII) for the televised response to the President?  And why, in retrospect, was the use of the symbolism so transitory that Cheney, in the opening quote above, could be so free today  to claim the same imagery for patronizing still another stage-full of captive service people?

And why — with the Democrats in possible position to crack open a bipartisan split with Bush and put themselves in much closer alignment with the troops than a President who spends almost every day scoring photo ops with the armed forces — aren’t we seeing those boots (or a like symbol) marched around by the Democrat knowing that opportunities to reprogram key associations to the the war are readily at hand?

(image 1 & 3:David Bohrer, image 2 Chris Greenberg. September 14, 2007. image 4: Bill O’leary — The Washington Post.  November 7, 2007.  Virginia.  Via

  • mdhatter

    Why did Webb drop them, for example, and switch to a much weaker symbol (of a photograph of his father serving in WWII) for the televised response to the President?
    The president and other GOP leaders often refer to the “Greatest Generation” and I recall Bush referring to todays servicemembers as members of a new greatest generation.

  • PT

    The key observation here is repetition. Find a good solid symbol and beat it to death. Works for ads, works for Republicans. It seems the progressives are hard put to trust that the symbols they come up with are worth repeating. The Republicans aren’t burdened with self -doubt.

  • lytom

    Seems like the only “true” constituency bush and his cronies have to rely on are the boot stormers. These have been further squeezed into endless propaganda for war…and that extends to the injured and dead who still get used up more in the propaganda. Once you sign in you are theirs forever.

  • donna

    I don’t think the Dems want to be associated with the endless war any longer. They recognize this is not the path the American people want to take – war for oil to the end of the empire.
    There is another way, and we have to decide to take it, or continue becoming a much lesser nation.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    no doubt after awhile Senator Webb felt the shame inherent of using his own soldier-son’s boots as a proxy credential for his propagenda, to get himself elected ~ and finally decided to stand on his own two feet.
    here BAGman suggests that the Democrats get savvy, not unlike their political opposition, and use the selfsame, self-serving image FRAMEs and verbal phrase CLANGs like ‘Return on Success’…
    …and with all due respects to the apparent efficacy of Messrs. Carl Jung and Edward Bernays i must respond: when did the Republicans become our teachers?
    i submit that ‘the troops’ are not some alien presence among us; not some demographic of uniforms to serve as backdrop metaphor; or bloody old boots held aloft in Nixonesque “V” poses for self-promotion purposes. They are just folks, just like us, because they are us, and most of us are just average.
    no. i reject using them = ourselves, “like THEY do,” period.
    if the Democrats want to earn the respect of ‘the troops’ that door is wide open ~ after all, they’re dying for lack of real leadership : when things are this fucked up on fire, you can piss on it and make things better. They could start by telling Americans to come together and stop using OIL = wiring money to the Arabs; to tie those goddam ‘Support the Troop’ ribbons around the hoses of their petrol station pumps.
    if the President won’t mobilize = unify the country, then christ! what an opportunity!!
    They could start by telling Americans the essential truth: that The Mission in IRAQ is not some kinda al Qaeda win/lose WAR, it is an occupation that we can choose either to do or not to do. We’re not helpless. The Democrats aren’t helpless.
    wit still trumps fear. true leadership still works. reality still sound bites dogs of war barks.

  • The BAG

    So are you saying that symbols/sound bites aren’t necessary (or necessarily effective) in comparison to “truth telling?”
    If not, in this media sophisticated age, what, then, might you/we propose as a “reality sound bite?” (I’m not wedded at all, by the way, to the boot imagery or any particular bellicose symbolism. Maybe, in fact, Webb’s use of the family portrait and his idea to forge a connection to “Greatest Generation” was, in fact, a STRONGER way to go.)
    Let’s be pragmatic, though. We know neither party is going to engage in “truth telling” to the extent you are advocating. Intention, in terms of political will, is always done elliptically, and the use of visual symbols and symbolic phrases (especially in this Mad Ave./You Tube/consultant-driven/focus-grouped environment) is perhaps the dominant vehicle to “transmit” what a party or a candidate “really” means.
    There are really three problems here, it seems. First, there is the failure — at least, on the war — to come up with firm positions. Next is the problem of coming up with the effective symbolism to convey the position. Then third, is the more lowerbrain stem-originated need to pound away at it.

  • MonsieurGonzo

    i’m saying substance creates its own poetic justice, Michael.
    i’m saying, pandering to the lowest common denominator base instincts won’t bring us change = enlightenment; it will only perpetuate dumb mob rule by another name.
    i’m saying, keep the faith, man.

  • dksbook

    An old Army wife here -
    The Dems should do this – they should all, every one of ‘em, wear a pair of combat boots every day until Bush ends this war, and they should do it while they work to properly outfit the troops and fund an orderly and reasonably swift withdrawal. The benefits would be immediate – they would find out what it is like, in a small way, to actually wear combat boots every day, even if they were in their air-conditioned and clean offices with access to the pleasant things Americans enjoy every day, like Starbucks in the morning, ice-cold salads for lunch, and 12 year-old scotch at 6PM, not to mention the swell tempurpedic mattresses they can share with their loved ones if they so desire. Wearing combat boots would be a great message, and not cost them much at all compared to what our troops pay in Iraq.

  • gmoke

    As I understand it, Senator Webb decided to wear his son’s combat boots as a gesture of solidarity with his son on duty in Iraq. I’ve heard that his son has finished serving his tour in Iraq.
    If Webb started wearing combat boots now, it would be a stunt, not a gesture of family commitment.

  • PTate in FR

    “There are really three problems here, it seems. First, there is the failure — at least, on the war — to come up with firm positions. Next is the problem of coming up with the effective symbolism to convey the position. Then third, is the more lowerbrain stem-originated need to pound away at it.”
    I’m still stuck on allegories. If ruins like that of the WTC serve as allegories of “hic transit gloria mundi,” of the transitoriness of influence and power, then it is clear that Americans are still struggling with confusion over the meaning of 9/11. Conservatives seem stuck in anger–lashing out at anyone who suggests the US isn’t Strong, Glorious, Righteous! Us conserve gas!?!! Yet the images of Cheney and Bush here suggest decadence, corruption, bloat–a pretty good description of a corpse. So the visual evidence is that their paradigm is falling apart.
    In contrast, Liberals appear stuck on yearning and denial–either longing for what worked in the past or denying that 9/11 changed anything significant for the US. (Consider that Mrs. Bill Clinton appears to wrapping up the Democratic nomination, or visually, Nancy Pelosi’s lovely irrelevance as discussed in a recent BnN thread.)
    Maybe the Democrats can’t come up with firm positions on Iraq–ones that can be communicated visually and repeated over and over–because they have yet to accommodate what 9/11 signified for the US and how we must change to accommodate that change. It is tough to come up with firm pro-America, pro-troops/anti-Iraq war positions when your primary drive is a yearning for what used to be.
    M. Gonzo is right, we need substance. We need a vision, an allegory, for a hopeful, post-9/11 world, in which the US and what we stand for feels good, strong, admirable, and a world leader in what matters. I propose that when we get back that vision, symbols and repetition will occur naturally. Consider the peace sign from the 1960s: That still has legs.

  • Mark

    I can’t help but think of Mike Dukakis riding around in a tank looking,well, pretty much like an idiot. Why can’t the Dems get going on SOMETHING? I have friends who are died in the wool republicans who swear if Hillary wins she will gut the military and allow al queda to take over the country. How do you break that kind of mindset? Like you say, repetition. It worked for Goebbels, and it works for Cheney. Is anyone paying attention out there?

  • monsieurgonzo

    “It worked for Goebbels.”
    you get it now ~ right, Michael?
    The folks need for intellectuals like you to cut through the visual SIGNAL:NOISE, man;
    to shatter their illusions; And in doing so, teach them about ENDS : MEANS, man.
    To teach them about how tempting it is to use the power ‘to see’ : to make others blind.
    lest we find ourselves rationalizing: “it worked for Goebbels.

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